Pleasure sinful?

-by Alice von Hildebrand (1923-2022)

“Is pleasure sinful? Some religious movements, such as Puritanism or pietism, certainly seem to think so. For them, religion is severe, for we are sinners threatened at each turn with damnation. Pleasure is the preferred tool of the devil to coax us into the abyss, so the religious man views pleasure as an archenemy and orders his life accordingly. The more somber life is, the better. God is judge, always on the lookout to condemn sinners to eternal punishment.

On the other side of the spectrum, we find thinkers like the ancient Greek Aristippus of Cyrene and the father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who considered any pleasure, as long as it produced happiness, good. “Let a man’s motive be ill will,” Bentham wrote; “call it even malice, envy, cruelty; it is still a kind of pleasure that is his motive: the pleasure he takes at the thought of the pain which he sees or expects to see his adversary undergo. Now even this wretched pleasure taken in itself is good.”

Where does the Christian stand between these two extremes? One of the many paradoxes of our faith is that, while we are told we should live in fear and trembling, aware that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8), we are further told, “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice” (Phil. 2:18). Can’t Christianity be accused of contradicting itself?

That certain activities are pleasurable is something God has put in human nature. Food, drink, rest, and moderate physical activity are pleasant and are meant to be. But the natural pleasures, legitimate as they are, can be abused. In moral evils such as gluttony, drunkenness, and laziness, the evil is not in the pleasure itself, but in its abuse. The fact that I know that someone enjoys a good meal and a choice wine does not give me any information about his moral standards.

But things become very different as soon as the person in question is addicted to any innocent pleasure. It is one thing to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner; it is another to spend most of the time drunk. This type of addiction betrays a lack of moral seriousness that is bound to have dire consequences. For God has created man to serve him on this earth and enjoy him eternally in heaven, and even if such people do not do anything evil, they certainly fail to serve God as he ought to be served.

The situation becomes radically different the moment a person, in order to attain a particular pleasure, uses illegitimate means. That a person is a gourmet and enjoys refined food is not morally evil; that he steals in order to be able to afford this pleasure is immoral.

Moreover, there are pleasures that should be avoided for the very reason that they are harmful. I would venture to say that if a person has full knowledge of tobacco’s harmful effects and chooses to become addicted to nicotine, he has committed a morally culpable action. Our health is God’s gift, and we have no right to jeopardize it. It is noteworthy that this fact is difficult for many to perceive: the tendency in our fallen nature is to assume that we have a ” right” over our own bodies, while in fact our bodies are God’s property. All gifts come from him, and we should never forget that we are stewards and not masters.

The pleasures that spring from immoral actions—such as cruelty (even toward animals), sadism, and the whole gamut of sexual perversions—are intrinsically evil, and the only proper response to them is horror and rejection: “Go away, Satan!” When such temptations arise—don’t forget: we’re not responsible for temptations, but only for yielding to their evil attraction—we should remember that moral abominations call for a radical cure and the use of radical means to protect ourselves from falling into an abyss of filth.

Once, according to legend, when Francis of Assisi was tempted by the flesh, without a moment’s hesitation, he threw himself into a bush of thorns. He did not “flirt” with the temptation. Not only did he reject it, but he inflicted upon himself a sharp physical pain that forced his attention on the immediate physical suffering—a radical way and efficient way of repelling the temptation’s vicious appeal.

Though someone who is tempted by the devil to view pornography may not be responsible for the temptation, if he keeps yielding to it, he invites its inevitable reappearance. Remember, we must run away. No one can force us to look at filth. To the one who lives in front of God, these types of “pleasure” evoke nothing but nausea. Nothing can justify our yielding to them. They degrade us in a very deep way and call for a radical condemnation. Clearly, such pleasures had no appeal prior to original sin, whereas we can assume that legitimate pleasures were more pleasurable still prior to the Fall.

Any “flirting” with obscene pleasure—such as looking at pornography even briefly or infrequently—leaves traces in the imagination that can create huge obstacles to our transformation in Christ. Anyone may be tempted; those who have never been subject to these abominations should realize that it is purely through God’s grace that they have been protected. But he to whom Satan presents these horrors should spew them out and run away.

This leads me to a related topic that I will mention only briefly. One of the regrettable changes that has taken place in the Church following Vatican II is the practical elimination of asceticism. Founders of religious orders have always insisted upon its importance for the “liberation” of man, leading to true freedom. I am referring not only to a limited sleep, to modest food, and to little or no wine, practices that limit the range of legitimate pleasures. I am also speaking of certain practices which are painful, such as long fasts, abstinence, and such disciplines (highly recommended by Francis de Sales—see Introduction to the Devout Life).

The news media have been so efficient in misinforming the faithful about the true teaching of Vatican II that, all of a sudden, novel practices were introduced in religious orders that would have made their founders cry. Discipline was in great measure abolished. Monks, nuns, and priests discovered that they were “unfulfilled” and left their monasteries, convents, and vocations in droves. But a good psychologist will tell you that the most unfulfilled persons are frequently those whose primary focus in life is self-fulfillment.

To abandon any form of asceticism is to sap Christian life of one of its essential aspects: death to ourselves. Dying to ourselves makes little sense in a world that has become so secularized that it has totally lost the sense of the supernatural and the radiant world that it opens up to the weak and imperfect creature that is man. Christ said in the gospel that there are some devils that can be conquered only by prayer and sacrifice. This should be a guideline today for those who are attracted by moral filth.

What should be the Christian’s attitude toward legitimate pleasures? Granted that he should never allow himself to become a slave of pleasures (innocent as the pleasure may be), he should view them as refreshments that God in His goodness has placed in the paths of his pilgrim children struggling in this vale of tears. Augustine tells us that weary travelers should gratefully accept to rest in an inn placed on their difficult path in ascending the mountain of the Lord. No doubt some heroic souls choose to renounce virtually all pleasures, not only to become “free,” but also because sacrifices are pleasing to God and can benefit brothers in need. Under wise spiritual guidance, they choose to suffer for those who seek nothing but pleasures.

Not everyone is called to put ashes on his food like Francis of Assisi (who, at the end of his life, apologized to his body—”Brother Ass”—for having treated him so badly). But every Christian is called upon to view pleasures not only as something subjectively satisfying, but as a beneficial good, manifesting God’s kindness, a kindness that should trigger gratitude in our soul. Indeed, gratitude—a forgotten virtue—should be a basic Christian attitude. And, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.””

Love & Lord, have mercy on me for I am a sinful man,